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A Jesuit Perspective: The Idea of Hope

A Jesuit Perspective: The Idea of Hope
Ronald H. McKinney, S.J., professor of philosophy, has taught at The University of Scranton since 1984. He served as the director of the University’s Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program for 24 years (1986-2010).

By Ronald H. McKinney, S.J.

The tragic loss of so many innocent children in the Newtown, Conn., massacre can’t help but make us question how God could permit such senseless violence. I was sauntering down a Scranton court recently only to discover the word “MOIS” spelled out in masking tape on the path in front of me. Was this some foreign word, I wondered. Perplexed, I continued on until the solution finally hit me. I turned around to confirm my hunch and, sure enough, saw the word “SLOW” glaring at me, as if I were a car going too fast along this narrow roadway and in need of a warning to avoid children at play. I realized that sometimes we need to look at events from a different angle if we are to understand them at all.

After the Holocaust, Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose brother died in a concentration camp, wrote: “Of what we cannot speak, we should remain silent.” However, the premier critic of Holocaust literature, Laurence Langer, allows for our need to express our experience in art and philosophy, lest we be tempted to forget the harm that comes from genocidal rage. He argues, though, that there are authentic and inauthentic expressions. For example, he opposes the optimistic vision found in the entries of the Jewish diarist Etty Hillesum, who perished at Auschwitz. She wrote about the “glorious and magnificent” beauty of God’s love which she glimpsed on occasion in the moon peering out from behind the barbed wire of her concentration camp. She refused to give in to the option of hatred for her persecutors. The last words she left us were in a postcard thrown out of the train taking her to Auschwitz: “We left the camp singing.” Langer repudiates such efforts to find redemption and transcendent meaning in the Holocaust experience. For him, the only authentic art is that which courageously expresses the absurdity and senselessness of life.

It seems that today, after going through a necessary period of grief and anger, we need to make a choice. We can decide to glumly see only the barbed wire of life in the future or to blindly revel in only the vision of a beautiful moon. Or, like Etty, we can embrace both: see the glorious moon behind the barbed wire and have hope in a better world to come.

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